Is monitoring really worth it?

The word monitoring is used in a variety of ways when it comes to land management. Monitoring can simply mean checking in from time to time, but it can also refer to a full scale data collection and analysis. Either way, we have all heard someone recommend that we monitor. I think many wonder if the effort invested to monitor pays off. Let give you some examples from my work.

I work with a National Park Service long-term monitoring team. We do the intensive kind of monitoring with a regular revisit schedule, protocols, and paid staff. Lots of data are meticulously collected, analyzed, and reported. Because of the long-term nature of the effort, the payoff may take time to materialize.

More recently, we have been looking at some data on a threatened plant at one of the parks. We have counts of flowers and stems along with heights, flowering dates and more. We then tried to look for patterns in the plant's abundance with fire, weather, moisture, and a slug of other things. It looks now like the plant is largely driven by soil moisture. Knowing this allows you to mitigate in years of low moisture and adjust management in years of plentiful moisture.

At another park we have a record of garlic mustard, and invasive plant. We also have records of the treatment efforts and land management. We have found that some additional monitoring will help clear up some ambiguity, but there is a hint that fire may have actually been able to reduce abundance more successfully than the other treatments. Now as I said, there is more to learn to be sure of this conclusion, but the moral of the story is that without the data, we would never know what is working and what is not. Without the data, a whole lot of money could be expended on treatments that are ineffective.

Monitoring doesn't always have to be so intense. Simple photo points taken systematically can be very effective. Extension folks know about types of monitoring that are easy and efficient for land owners to apply for range management. I've heard more than one person remark about how the eastern redcedar crept up on them. Without the focused monitoring, something mundane can make big changes without realizing it.

Take the time this winter to set up a monitoring strategy for this spring's burn units. Establish photo monitoring by choosing a permanent location to take pictures. Walk a line of pre-determined length and count things of interest like trees and shrubs. Do a quail call survey this year or watch for your favorite furry animals. Take some notes, and then repeat the surveys after the burn and during the recovery phase of the unit. Down the road the time invested will pay off.